Refugees wait for 20 years

© The Australian

January 20, 2006

WEST Papuan asylum-seekers who arrived in Australia 20 years ago are still waiting for a decision on their applications for permanent residency.

Wary of upsetting Indonesia over separatist sympathies in Australia, Canberra procrastinated over the fate of 12 men who arrived from the province, then known as Irian Jaya, in 1985 and 1986. The men fled in canoes to Torres Strait islands. Most were active supporters of the Free Papua Movement (OPM).

They were not detained as illegal immigrants.

Federal authorities turned a blind eye as they worked as labourers on banana farms in north Queensland.

“Immigration just dumped them in Cairns and left them to their own devices,” said Queensland academic Greg Poulgrain, who helped the men find jobs and accommodation.

Most were eventually granted refugee status, including Thomas Wanda, who was jailed for three months in 1991 for trying to smuggle weapons to the OPM from a Tully banana farm.

But Dr Poulgrain said some were still living, without permanent residency status, in north Queensland.

Indonesia fought a bitter war with the Dutch over the western half of the island of New Guinea in 1962. The row ended with a UN-brokered agreement giving Indonesia control of the territory on condition Jakarta allowed a vote of self-determination.

Instead of a referendum on independence, 1025 hand-picked Papuans, voting under Indonesian military supervision, opted in 1969 for the incorporation of Irian Jaya as Indonesia’s 26th province.

Amnesty International estimates more than 100,000 Papuans have since died at the hands of the Indonesian military. Displays of separatist sentiment such as the raising of the OPM flag are brutally suppressed.

With transmigration from other provinces, non-Papuans make up half of West Papua’s population of two million, and Islam has eclipsed Christianity as the main religion.

Licences held by the US mining giant Freeport McMoran cover 20per cent of West Papua and its gold and copper mine on Mt Grasberg – the world’s biggest – has been blamed for widespread pollution and human rights abuses by its military protectors.

The OPM, which has been waging a low-level guerilla war to obtain independence for the province, attracted international headlines in 1995 when it kidnapped 25 people, including six Europeans.